The file, obtained by The Anniston Star from an archive at Washington University in St. Louis, contains some 160 pages, including interviews with local police and affidavits of people caught up in a riot and its aftermath in Marion that led to the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper.
The trooper, James Bonard Fowler, was indicted for murder by a Perry County grand jury on May 9. He has admitted shooting Jackson, but has maintained to this newspaper that it was done in self-defense. Fowler remains free on $250,000 bond. Circuit Judge Thomas Jones of Selma will set a tentative trial date and Fowler will be allowed to enter a plea on July 10.
Neither the prosecution nor the defense in the case had seen the file until they were provided a copy by The Star this week. Parts of the file could be important to both sides because some statements bolster one side while others seem to bolster the other side, say those familiar with the case.
Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1999, said there would be questions about whether some of the material in the file could be entered into evidence, but he stressed that the material still could be important.
“At the very least,” said Jones, “the contents of the file will allow both the prosecution and the defense to test the existing evidence.”
Brian Landsberg, a former attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department who arrived in Marion after Jackson was shot in February 1965, agrees.
“Those statements are relevant,” he said from his office at the University of the Pacific where he is a law professor. “Whether they are useable in court is a different question.”
Landsberg, who has just finished the book, “Free at Last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” said cooperation between state law enforcement authorities and the FBI in the 1960s was at times very difficult, given the political realities.
As if to buttress that point, the file contains a letter from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, explaining that the head of the state troopers, Al Lingo, had forbidden his men from talking to FBI agents. This would explain why Fowler never has been interviewed by the FBI.
The names of many witnesses, as well as the names of the FBI agents conducting the interviews, are redacted, along with other parts of the statements. One statement that is mostly intact, however, is Jackson's.
FBI agents interviewing him at Selma's Good Samaritan Hospital on Feb. 23, 1965 - five days after the shooting and five days before he died - wrote that Jackson said he was in a Marion restaurant, Mack's Café, when troopers came inside and started beating him.
The statement says Jackson saw troopers beating his mother and recalls being shot by a state trooper in the stomach. The agents wrote that Jackson recalled then running from the café into the street, where the troopers continued to beat him. The agents added that Jackson could not offer a description of the trooper who shot him or of the ones who beat him or his mother.
Another statement, taken from the night supervisor, a female nurse at Good Samaritan on Feb. 20, also could prove important. At least part of District Attorney Michael Jackson's case is going to hang on the testimony of a former nurse at Good Samaritan, Vera Jenkins Booker, who told the grand jury that Jackson related to her what happened at Mack's Cafe. Her retelling of Jackson's story may be allowed into evidence under an exception to the hearsay rule referred to as a deathbed declaration, say legal experts.
It is not clear that Booker is the nurse being interviewed by the FBI agents, as the name is redacted. But they quote the nurse as saying she didn't expect Jackson to live. She told the agents that Jackson told her a riot had started inside Mack's Café, between officers and people in the café.
The agents wrote that Jackson told the nurse the riot inside the café “was started by a state trooper who said that he [Jackson] threw a bottle during the riot. Mr. Jackson could not identify the state trooper that made the 'accusation' and shot him. Mr. Jackson stated he did not throw a bottle, nor attempt to hit anyone.”
Montgomery attorney George Beck, who represents Fowler, said the file The Star sent him is incomplete.
“I see names blotted other statements blotted out. I need a complete file,” Beck said from his law office.
The state, Beck added, has known the particulars of this case for decades, yet has chosen this late date to bring the case, when many witnesses who would be beneficial for his client are dead.
“The state has intentionally delayed bringing this case at this late date, in 2007, which has fatally prejudiced Trooper Fowler,” Beck said.
District Attorney Michael Jackson did not return repeated telephone calls for comment for this story.
An additional FBI document, provided by Landsberg, which he uncovered in the course of his research, also refers to Jimmie Lee Jackson.
The report reads in part, “…Alabama state trooper Frank D. Higginbot[ham] was attacked by two Negro males and struck on the head with a bottle, opening a gash above his temple, which required 12 stitches. One of his assailants was identified as Jimmie Lee Jackson, local Negro male, age 25, who was shot in the stomach by an unknown state trooper. Colonel Al Lingo, Director, Alabama state troopers, stated that charges would be placed against Jackson.”
Other statements are from eyewitnesses in the Café, including one taken three days after the incident, which quotes a person (again the name is redacted) as saying, “A state trooper hit Jimmie Lee Jackson over the head with a club. The same trooper that hit Jimmie Lee Jackson drew his revolver out of his holster and fired one shot at Jimmie Lee Jackson.”
A number of statements are from outside the café, on the streets. Many of the people interviewed speak of being beaten by law enforcement and a general environment of chaos.
There are also statements from local law enforcement officials in Marion, who say the nighttime protest was for the most part peaceful. There is also a letter in the file from then FBI Director J. Edger Hoover to the U.S. Attorney General, who at the time was Nicholas Katzenbach, which supports that version of events.
Hoover writes that the situation in Marion had been greatly exaggerated by the press, that there was no truth to the allegations of police brutality.